I don't photograph homeless people. But as I waited for my daughter in front of the French bakery in Logan Square, there she was, rummaging just a few feet away through a sidewalk trash can. The scene broke my heart. It was one of those rare moments in which the reality that swirls unnoticed around us each day suddenly stops and magnifies. I took the photo.
I watched her open discarded coffee cups and styrofoam food containers looking for remains—calmly, naturally, as if this is what one does on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. I watched people stream by—lovers, children, her peers—enjoying their day, as though everything was right with the world. I wondered about her life, her family, what brought her to this point.Mostly I felt sadness, nearly to the point of tears. It wasn't just that moment, but imagining all the moments of her history that brought her to this place, this time, this fate.
Several days later, this image still haunts me. I feel shame for not offering something; a loaf of bread, some cash, any kindness. This is my own plight. But of hers, what can be said? There are no words. Sometimes the pathos of life, the indifference, is almost too much to bear.
Sujata is a pivotal figure in Buddhist lore and a symbol of piety and service. The daughter of a wealthy cowherder, the story says she heard that a deity had manifested in a grove near her home. Seeking a blessing, she prepared an elaborate offering and took it to the forest. The god, in fact, was Buddha, who, after six years of extreme asceticism, had that day discovered the Middle Way and had decided to resume eating. It is said that her simple porridge—his first meal—fortified him so much so that he resolved to not rise from his meditations until he attained enlightenment. History records that he did so under the bodh tree that night.
In ancient India, in a forest near Senani,
For some reason, I think of her today—
They say she milked a thousand cows,
My hammock slows its gentle arc.
A little rice, some honey, her best bowl,
Maples swirl the blue of sky,
She did not know the god was Buddha.
On my face the touch of final sun.
Her last awareness before the gift
Photo by Shomei Tomatsu
My wife and I attended a wonderful show at the Art Institute of Chicago by Japanese photographer and writer, Shomei Tomatsu. It was unique for the combination of his powerful photographs and elegant prose. We liked the show so much we went back again the next day.
Can we consider photographs to be similar to words? Even if you pile up a lot of single pictures, you can't restrict the meanings of the pictures, can you? For me, the work is not connecting photograph and photograph, but connecting photograph and text. Putting together pictures with pictures, the aim is not to stop them from speaking, but to increase their speech.
It's hard to argue with Somatsu's perspective on photographs and meaning. Words and pictures are both symbols. Neither is the thing it represents. But humanity has a long history of applying increasing precision to language, while much less so to pictures. A few images have acquired specific and shared meanings; the cross, the octagonal shape of a stop sign, a raised middle finger. But by and large, images remain a comparatively subjective means of communicating. Combined, however, the evocative quality of photographs and the explanatory power of prose create an art form that may be unmatched in expressing meaning.
More of his work at The New Yorker
I rarely ask to take photos on the street, but I stopped and chatted with this man. He's a street harmonica performer, who sits in the morning sun at the eastern mouth of a long, wide tunnel under Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, using the tunnel as his amplifier. The sound is remarkable. I tipped. We talked. Before 9/11, he said, he could take in $400 on a Saturday. Now he's lucky if he breaks 50. "That changed people," he said. "Made us all suspicious."
Among the many wonders on display at the Art Institute of Chicago are two adjoining rooms dedicated to ancient religious art of Southeast Asia. Buddhas, Shivas, Ganeshes, and many other representations of gods, goddesses, demons, and their manifestations fill that space. I feel a deep affinity for some of the Buddhas, their postures, expressions, and mudras. My heart greets them in hidden namaste.
Whenever I visit the museum, I welcome a walk through those rooms. I'm sure the various sculptures and castings were created with all sorts of motives--some noble and devout, some vain and base. Still, the place feels sacred to me, like a temple, charged with thousands of years of human desire for transcendence.
Rising late today, just before sunrise,
Out of the mouths of these shapes
What is it out there that needs me?
Soon the froth and noise still.
Returning, I rise lightly, smile,
Photograph by Allen Ginsberg
Last weekend I attended a moving Sunday discourse by renowned spiritual Master and meditation teacher, Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj. It was the final talk of his winter visit to the Chicago area. He opened by commenting on the day's cold weather (in the teens), and noted how we cover ourselves with clothing, layer upon layer, as temperatures drop in our part of the world. Using this as a metaphor, he then suggested that the same process marks our emotional lives, as we erect increasingly denser psychological coverings to protect ourselves from life's coldness and the many hurts we experience as we grow. Advancing into our 40s, 50s, and beyond, we may congeal, as the bricks in these walls accumulate and destroy the spirit of open-heartedness we knew as children and youths. Ultimately, he said, we may awake one day to the sad realization that we no longer have any true friends.
Always an optimist, with remarkable conviction in the spiritual resources within each of us, the remainder of his discourse centered on our potential to regain that love and fellow-feeling by strengthening our spiritual values and connecting with the divinity within ourselves through meditation.
Coincidentally, on the morning before the discourse, a friend emailed me an excerpt from an essay on Allen Ginsberg's photographs. Known, of course, as a seminal Beat poet, Ginsberg was also an active photographer, first casually on his own, and later more seriously with advice from his friend, Robert Frank. The photographs offer an engaging portrait of his pals, pivotal characters of modern American culture. Googling a bit, I traced the excerpt back to an essay by Matthew Smolinsky at the blog OBSCURA. It's a wonderful piece, the first in a series. The other parts can be found here.
Listening to Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj's opening remarks, my thoughts returned to what I had read earlier that day, in one of those unexpected but welcome juxtapositions of significance. In particular, I remembered the sense of community and open sharing represented by this paragraph:
"Faith in the sanctity of art and the moment of creation, and the confessional spirit of their work, made the Beat movement not only artistic but spiritual in nature. It is a lineage going back to writers like Rimbaud, Proust, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, and spiritual philosophers like Socrates and Milarepa. The Beats believed in reading their work aloud when possible, and they read the work of others voraciously - often aloud to each other. They generally approached art as a communal experience where everything was shared. They collaborated freely with artists in other mediums, and as mature artists they taught and mentored young artists."
What touches me in this essay is the feeling of "communal experience" and open sharing that Smolinski describes. I suspect most of us fondly recall that intimacy among friends from our own youth and young adulthood. Maybe I should speak only for myself, but I look at my life now and the lives of my friends, and it seems we all are like speeding trains traveling parallel tracks. It's wonderful that that we all are pursuing shared goals of personal and spiritual growth and creativity. It's wonderful that our tracks still cross often, and when they do we delight in each other's company. But meaningful connections seem fewer and fewer as the years go by. And I'm pretty sure I'm not romanticizing the past.
Perhaps, as Sant Rajinder Singh Ji said, isolation is an unfortunate coping mechanism against life's relentless wear. Perhaps it's also an inescapable consequence of modern times, with dual-income families facing the realities of economic survival. Or, maybe it's our era of virtual communications, where emailing and tweeting replace face-to-face communication. Whatever the cause or causes, this growing sense of aloneness surely can, at least to some extent, be reversed. Two things I am certain of: Deepening our spirit of community is surely worth trying, and to do so, we can only look to ourselves.
A Leica User Forum member shared this video on Daido Moriyama discussing his work and process. I find it remarkable. I share it, not because I'm enamored with his photography, but because the video crystallizes a point with which I have been preoccupied for the last two years. It's a theme I've come to believe is central to a meaningful creative life, whether our medium of choice is music, poetry, or a visual art.
What moves me is Moriyama's description of the vision behind his street photography: "For me cities are enormous bodies of people's desires, and I search for my own desires within them. I slice into time, seeing the moment. That's the kind of camera work I like." Later he adds, "I see Shinjuku as a stadium of people's desires...where overcrowded and jumbled thoughts and desires are whirling. I can't photograph anything without a city."
His interest in desire strikes me as a particularly Buddhist vision. Buddhism, after all, is a faith grounded in desire as the root of delusion and limitation. Of course, human desire runs the gamut from base to noble. Moriyama, known for his "snapshots" of life in the dim alleys of Shinjuku, Tokyo, seems to relish desire's darker interiors. Whether or not we agree with his view of humanity, whether or not we like his work, few could fail to admire his self-knowledge and conviction and what it has done for him as an artist. What I like about this video is how it underscores the role of a strong philosophical foundation in artistic pursuits. Whatever we happen to believe in, it seems to me that ideas and ideals are vital to any creative endeavor that is to have depth and unity, and to sustain us creatively over years and decades.
In his powerful book, Negative/Positive: A Philosophy of Photography, critic Bill Jay describes this approach as "values-driven" photography. The book is at once a diatribe against the modern focus on artistic product, and a call to center photography on the photographer and his/her belief system. In short, it's not about our pictures; it's about who we are and what we believe.
In a chapter entitled "From Humanism to Heroism," Jay digests his viewpoint into a call for a new artistic standard—the "hero" photographer:
"The hero is an individual who cares not a fig for his own nakedness and vulnerability, and his only passion is the search for truth. He does not "fit-in" a group or style or movement since he is not interested in systems but only in the striving toward his own completeness as a human being. This struggle to be free, to creatively express his own life-attitudes, makes him seem arrogant, sometimes abrasive, always indifferent to the pettiness of others. Above all, the hero's single-minded objective is to live more intensely. The overflow of this intensity will be shared with others in the form of photographs, but the hero is not concerned with good or bad but only in the act of struggle toward a higher level of existence."
Jay concludes his book with a practical, step-by-step model for anyone serious about taking his or her photography deeper. I oversimplify, but the steps are these:
I don't know much about Moriyama personally, and I'm not a fan of his point of view. But I'd place him among the hero artists Jay's describes, and I think the Moriyama we meet in this video would map well to Jay's model. It's not that there is anything wrong with casual shooting, purely for enjoyment. But at some point in life we must grow and mature. I love what James Wright wrote about his own poetic aspirations: "The kind of poetry I want to write is the poetry of a grown man." Photography, it seems to me, can be both a facilitator and an indicator of that growth. Self-knowledge and its expression may not guarantee a stellar body of work. But without an understanding of and commitment to our beliefs, we will forever be shooting surfaces and peripheries.
At seventy-four years old, Daido Moriyama has been roaming the same Tokyo streets for over fifty years and, as he says in the video, "could never see the city with an old man's eyes or as if I understood everything." My guess is that a large part of that longevity and creativity—as well as his acclaim—is a direct result of having consciously aligned his life and his art.
I was recently looking through some of my Agfachromes from the 1970s. While most were shooting Kodachrome back then, I favored this slide film for its low contrast, soft, warm colors, and lovely grain. The image below reminded me of a favorite poem by the 15th century mystic and poet, Kabir Sahib.
Kabir is considered the founder of the Sant tradition in India, and he is among the few spiritual figures claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. There are many translations of his poetry, but none I've read matches the beauty and power of Rabindranath Tagore's book, The Songs of Kabir. In Indian mystic literature a common term for the soul is hansa or swan.
Tell me, O Swan, your ancient tale.
My good friend and fellow photographer, Howard Linton, invited me to comment on the photograph above in a guest post on his blog. You can read the post here. Thanks, Howard. I enjoyed reflecting on your wonderful image.
There aren't many things I relish about Midwest winters, but among them is the quality of light on days just before and after the Winter Solstice, which here occurs around the third week of December. The sun crosses the sky on its southernmost arc, spilling wonder through the south and north windows of my home. I take breaks from my office work periodically throughout the day to observe and photograph. Especially at about 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM something interesting always seems to be on display, as the soft, low light interacts with objects inside, giving even the most mundane things significance.
Here are a couple recent pictures and a well-known poem on the subject by Emily Dickinson.
by Emily Dickinson
There's a certain Slant of light,
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
None may teach it – Any –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Something of what you were lingers
like the sense of lost love, like a child
knows. At some point the inevitable—
you grow and pass through
you were certain would not end.
for a while, as the one you have
Now, past is gone, future is gone
none of you could have imagined
I frequent a few photography forums and have done so for years. By and large the conversation is civil and about equally split between entertaining and instructive on the one hand and superficial on the other. But even small talk has its place.
Once in a while, though, the insensitivity and cruelty some posters display can be shocking. It's like a knife suddenly hurtling at you from some dark place. The attack seems to either generate counter-attacks and the thread falls apart—or the original poster quietly disappears, often forever. Forums can bring out the best in people—sharing, support, and genuine community. But when things turn sour, it can be embarrassing to call yourself part of this species.
The advice of our mothers, as usual, was right: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."? Apparently, that wisdom comes down to us from the movie Bambi. When the newly born Bambi is first presented to the animals of the forest as their new prince, the rabbit Thumper comments that he looks "kinda wobbly." His mother corrects him and makes him repeat this famous phrase, which his father had told him that very morning.
In his spiritual discourse last Sunday, Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj took communication guidelines further with this simple formula: Before you open your mouth (or touch your keyboard), ask yourself three question about what you're planning to spill:
"Is it truthful?"
"Is it necessary?"
"Is it kind?"
If there has ever been better advice about communicating with others, I have not heard it.
Of course, sometimes we need to call a spade a spade. History shows that the evolution of civilization is often marked by such uncomprimising truth-telling. But normal discourse rarely requires such radicalism.
As a rule, keeping mum is about the best thing we can do when something irks us. There's a real Zen-like serenity in simply letting things pass. We are usually better for it and so is our community.
It is not down in any map. True places never are.
Some places have a way of working themselves into your heart. We all have at least a few. You know it's one of those places when weeks or months or years later you find yourself back there in your mind, almost like a dream, but more satisfying. Close your eyes and there you are in that delightful residual reality that warms you again with its inexplicable magic.
My family and I just returned from a vacation on the Caribbean island of Roatan, Honduras. A few years back my wife and daughter stopped there briefly on a cruise and loved the place. This time we rented a house on the lee side of the island, where the reef is close to shore and the sea always smooth and clear. In summer, few cruise ships dock at the island, so it becomes the perfect Caribbean paradise.
We really did nothing special. Lots of walks on the beach, some amazing snorkeling (it's one of the top dive spots in the world), afternoon siestas, meals together, evening games, and a short story discussion group on selections from Hemmingway, Rilke, Joyce and others. Like I said, nothing special.
What always strikes me on vacation trips is how wound up our regular lives make us. Fortunately, unwinding never takes long. A few days and body and brain rewire to island rhythms, as if restored to a natural state. There's no better feeling than that letting go.
What embeds a place in our consciousness, in my view, is not the setting. Sure, that's part of it. But Melville is right; the power of place we experience and internalize is not on any map. It is born of an esoteric chemistry between what's outside us and what's inside us.
My guru, Sant Kirpal Singh Ji, used to say that a dog thinks it's pleasure on chewing a bone comes from the bone, when what the dog actually relishes is the blood of its own gums cut by bone. Places become sacred to us because they cut away our shells, the artifice we all put on of necessity to make it through life. From that stripping away, our natural radiance of spirit emerges. That's the real source of our pleasure.
It's too bad we have to travel to far-flung places to experience what's always right there inside us. But if an island, or any other intersection of latitude and longitude, can help us taste that true place within, let's go.
At the meditation center I attend, I'm scheduled to give a talk soon on the subject of purposeful living. As part of the planning, I'm reviewing how I use PowerPoint. To that end, I'm reading the book Presentation Zen, in which the author applies Zen aesthetics to PowerPoint development. Actually, there is no such thing as the so-called "Zen aesthetic." Apparently that's a Western invention.
Still, there is a Zen state of mind (or no-mind), and that's the focus of the book—how to bring that sensibility to your business presentations. Contrast Zen simplicity and spaciousness with the dense, fact-laden look of conventional PowerPoint slides and you get the idea. The author, Garr Reynolds, has a blog on the subject.
Central to this approach, Reynolds says, are qualities embodied by the Japanese word "wa." The root "wa" can be found in many Japanese words and phrases, such as the familiar "wabi sabi." Wa is usually translated as "harmony," but the term is far more suggestive, with many implications. Three in particular resonate with me. Not just creatively, but also as life principles.
I took the photo above at a lovely Japanese garden northwest of Chicago. The rock marks the entrance to an off-limits hira-niwa, or flat garden, quietly emanating all three qualities of wa. In Japanese landscaping, a rock tied with a string says in its own understated way, "do not enter." Beautiful, I think. But even more telling is the fact that such a delicate statement is honored.
Contrast this gentle admonition with the western counterpart shown on the right, from a business near my home. "Hey, buddy. I'm talking to YOU!" I'm not sure which is worse: that we have signs like this or that we need signs like this. American brashness, independence, and defiance are what make us the unique and wonderful culture we are. But I'm all for more wa—in our art as well as our lives.
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© All images and text copyright John Wolf
John Wolf lives, writes